“It’s all about the fanny.”
Sara Blakely was explaining the form and function of Spanx, the footless, butt-shaping pantyhose she invented, to an English journalist on the BBC.
“Spanx is designed to lift, smooth and separate the fanny,” she gushed. Blakely is the animated type who speaks with her hands, so she made some lifting and smoothing motions as she spoke—oblivious to her interviewer’s reaction. Finally, the panicked Englishman interrupted, his plummy accent turning firm: “I think you mean ‘bum.’”
Blakely shrugged off the semantics until after the mic was off, whereupon he clarified them for her.
Photograph by David Stuart; makeup by Viktorija/L'Agence; hair by Radmila Borkovic; spread from our June 2004 issue
“He explained that ‘fanny’ is British slang for vagina,” says Blakely, rolling her eyes over the mortification of inadvertently telling “the entire United Kingdom” that her product would essentially perform the function of a gynecologist’s stirrups. It is a classic anecdote from the archives of Spanx corporate culture—ultra-femme, self-mockingly funny and nearing naughtiness without quite placing a pedicured toe over the line.
With her blond good looks and quick comic timing, Blakely, 33, evokes a starlet from the screwball-comedy era, a woman who could slip on a banana peel and fall, arms flailing, into the embrace of the leading man. A woman boldly willing to make an ass of herself.
Her success with the almost four-year-old, multimillion-dollar company has been anthologized in the business press as a parable of plucky, feminist entrepreneurship—what would happen if Horatio Alger paused to check his derriere in the mirror before pulling himself up by his bootstraps.
In her 20s, Blakely was selling fax machines door-to-door by day, doing stand-up comedy at night and generally leading the life of a fun-loving Atlanta fashionista with big ambitions. Her eureka moment came when she faced a bugaboo that confronts every clotheshorse at some time or another: a pair of cream-colored summer pants that showcased her drawers along with “every physical flaw” in glaring bas-relief. Appalled by her rearview reflection, but without time to hunt down another outfit, Blakely simply cut the feet off her control-top pantyhose and wore them as an undergarment. No bulges, no dreaded VPL (visible panty lines).
Inspired by that revelation, she scoured stores for footless pantyhose, but that quest proved futile. “People would say, ‘What a great idea,’ but that was as far as it went.” So, eyeing a market niche, she secured a patent and, with her savings of $5,000, hit the road for North Carolina, where much of the world’s hosiery is produced in textile mills. As she pleaded with mill owner after mill owner to consider her idea, she bumped up against the patriarchy of pantyhose. “The industry is run by men,” she says. “And they don’t wear pantyhose—or if they do, they don’t admit it. A man’s solution to panty lines is a G-string. They put underwear in the exact place we’ve been trying to get it out of.”
Finally, one of the mill owners who had turned her down called back with an offer to make a prototype of her “crazy idea.” When Blakely asked what changed his mind, he simply said, “I have two daughters.”